Urban ecology is about balance, and it includes people and nature. Being focused on both makes us see choices in a certain way.
Chicago Park District
Education Reimagined’s Senior Partner for Ecosystems Growth and Advancement, Bobbi Macdonald, sat down with Dr. Lauren Umek, an urban ecologist based in Chicago. As an urban ecologist, Lauren works to find the balance between the needs of people and the needs of nature in urban settings. Here, Lauren reflects on where the idea of learner-centered ecosystems and her work overlap, in both theory and practice.
Bobbi: As an urban ecologist, what do you think about the use of the term “ecosystem” in our description of the vision we hold at Education Reimagined?
Lauren: I think the use of the term “ecosystems” in the education field and the way urban ecologists struggle with ecosystems are really similar. The whole discipline of ecology was initially developed without people. Nature was a thing that was apart from people. Now, we have cities, and we have an understanding that people are also organisms who influence their environments.
Early textbooks on ecosystem ecology — our classic, fundamental understanding of how ecosystems work — don’t or rarely include the role humans played in the ecosystems. That has changed in recent years as textbooks now sometimes incorporate at least a basic acknowledgment of how indigenous people worked with the ecosystems and were an integral part of them. For example, much of our prairies primarily exist because people set the vegetation on fire. This isn’t a good or bad thing, but it challenges the idea that nature is something completely separate from humans. You can’t even talk about certain ecosystems without talking about people.
These ideas of what an ecosystem, or nature in general, is and how it is a part of or apart from humans is critical in my work where we aim to “restore ecosystems” in highly urbanized areas.
Thinking about our disciplines and some of the shared terms, I find some remarkable parallels. For example, when urban ecologists talk about restoration, sometimes it’s not about restoring what already exists but building something from scratch to fix what had been destroyed. The original parts might still be there, some parts may be missing, and some parts may be broken. Or, maybe this version of an ecosystem has never existed in a place ever. When you look at a place, you have to look at how the components came together; then, you look at how they work (or don’t work) now, which pieces aren’t there, and who wasn’t invited. With this, you start to see what you can add, remove, or repair to make that ecosystem function for the current and future needs of that space.
Committing to thriving doesn’t mean that everything’s always thriving. It means that you’re willing to say, “Where are we not being equitable? Where are we inhibiting someone from thriving?”
Bobbi: Tell me a little bit about how you approach your work of restoration in Chicago. What is your process?
Lauren: First, we ask questions. We want to know about the immediate local history and how relevant that is to the space. If we’re looking to restore a space, that usually means something is wrong ecologically or there is a more complicated perception that something needs to be done to improve the space, so we ask these questions together.
Every single place is different, but there are three big questions we ask in every space.
First, we ask ourselves as a team: (1) What was this place? What was physically in this location? And, is that past identity relevant to what it will become? Because it may not be.
Lauren Umek and research assistant Alifya Saify at Big Marsh Park.
So, for example, most of the lakefront and shoreline in Chicago was, at one time, Lake Michigan. But, of course, restoring the lakefront path and beaches to a lake isn’t a realistic goal. Understanding that natural history is a good reference, but replicating the past exactly is not a realistic goal for how we envision the future of those spaces. The Ecosystem at Big Marsh, one of my sites on the south side, was once part of a dune-swale ecosystem between Lake Calumet and Lake Michigan. It is now land. It will never be Lake Calumet again. But knowing what it was is a good reference. We can use that information to understand what was here and what might come back if we work with the site history in mind.
The second big question is: (2) What is this place used as currently? Look at both good and bad. What does this space mean to the people here, as well as for nature? Are people and nature interrelated at this point or are they two separate things? What is their relationship?
Finally, the third big question is, (3) What could this place become? This last question should be asked without constraints. A full creative envisioning of the possibilities of a given space that would meet all or as many needs of the community as possible, in the broadest sense of that word. Constraints come later.
Urban ecology is about balance, and it includes people and nature. Being focused on both makes us see choices in a certain way. If I was working for a conservation-driven agency, I could make goals focused only on nature and what is best for it. However, working in the city, if you don’t involve people in restoring ecosystems, you’re going to fail.
Humans are part of the landscape and have a relationship with the space. As urban ecologists, our work is focused on how we can practice conservation and how we engage people with local nature — and how decisions can find an appropriate balance of both.
We ask questions like: What was this place? What is this place used as currently? What could this place become?
Chicago Park District
Bobbi: How do you find the balance between the ecological goals and the people goals?
Lauren: Each place is unique. Sometimes, we have to bend the way we think about choices from the ecological perspective or the people perspective. For example, European buckthorn is an invasive shrub in the midwest. If we were exclusively focused on nature, we’d cut it down everywhere and replace it with a diverse woodland structure, native to our region — a couple of trees, some oaks, hickories, some shrubs, and some herbaceous plants, grasses, sedges, and flowers. But, in developed areas, people don’t always have the opportunity to feel immersed in nature. There’s a special feeling of wonder and discovery that you can feel surrounded by a dense thicket of shrubs; this is something that European buckthorn can provide, even though it doesn’t contribute to conservation goals.
So, there are some cases where having a thicket of, albeit, an invasive species, is a cool thing, at least temporarily. This is an example where we might put the ecological goals aside temporarily in favor of meeting goals for how people experience and are changed in a space.
That’s one example where our education programming staff and our ecological nature staff have had to really communicate. We both want kids and families to experience nature, but how, and what that looks like at different times and in different spaces is super variable.
Bobbi: We use the term ecosystem so that we can talk about a different kind of system of education; one that has far-reaching goals, a living system. In this vision, the education infrastructure becomes the backbone to something much more inclusive and powerful than when we limit education to the school building, when we isolate teachers in classrooms, and when we group children by birthdates.
The ecosystem is both hyper-local and deeply connected by strong communities — and it begins with the learners. We do this by seeing each learner as a unique person with a family, history, home, and with the potential to contribute and participate in a community focused on thriving and growing together. The ecosystem is aimed at thriving. Thriving individuals, thriving communities, thriving economy, and a thriving planet.
From your perspective, what is important for us to consider?
Lauren: Nature and the way ecosystems function can be ugly. There’s death, parasitism, and disturbances. Sometimes those disturbances are important to keep that ecosystem thriving, which, as it applies to people, is scary and hard. If a fire comes through a forest, while life-ending for some, that disturbance might be critical for the future growth of that forest. Under improper conditions, fire can be devastating. How do we think about the side that isn’t pretty in the natural ecosystem, like predators, prey, parasites, pathogens, disturbances, and destruction when applying these concepts to people?
Bobbi: You are pointing to something so important. We need to develop systems of shared accountability and transparency. And, there are hard times. Life is filled with tragedy and tests of our character. Where do we get the strength to face those hard times together?
Having raised my children in community with the City Neighbors network of schools in Baltimore over 20 years or so, I experienced first-hand both the joy and love that is possible and the messiness of community, the troubled times that come with life, tragedy, and injustice. Committing to thriving doesn’t mean that everything’s always thriving. It means that you’re willing to say, “Where are we not being equitable? Where are we inhibiting someone from thriving?” We continue to ask questions together and that process creates something new.
We use the term “ecosystem” so that we can talk about a different kind of system of education. One that has far-reaching goals, a living system.
Lauren: One of the greatest examples we have in natural ecosystems is in this concept of biodiversity and stability. If you have enough biodiversity, there is a functional redundancy. For instance, in a remnant prairie, you might see 80 species, and it’s usually mostly grass.
But, one year there’s a drought; you might not see the same grass as much but something else begins to thrive that you haven’t seen before. There’s an ebb and flow. You never see the same dominance of one species over the other. Some situations cause some species to struggle while others thrive. A functioning and diverse ecosystem can adapt to different changes and conditions.
Bobbi: Yes! There’s strength in biodiversity. That translates into what we’re discovering when we talk about how the ecosystem could function. There’s the idea of a home base, which is a group of learners who have an advisory and stay together over many years, along with places of learning like learning hubs and field sites.
The learners are embedded in the ecosystem with these cross-functional teams designed to support them and that’s where you find the biodiversity. It isn’t one person who can give a learner everything they need. But, if they have access to this cross-functional team that changes and morphs as the people grow and change, and they have access to even further out in the community, and we use the child’s interests and passions and the family’s needs to help drive the ongoing pathway of each child — then we have a dynamic that functions like biodiversity.
Lauren: And there will be more to learn as different things play out. An example, when we start a new project, sometimes we see people trampling sections of new plantings. When you start to investigate why they are doing that, sometimes we discover something surprisingly beautiful.
Along a newly restored bank of the Chicago River, we learned that people were trampling to get to a beautiful view that wasn’t accessible before. We removed the tangle of invasive species and a dam, which revealed this cool waterfall through rocks and accidentally created an amazing space to view the sunset. That’s why they were trampling — not because they wanted to stomp on plants, but because they wanted to get to this beautiful place that previously didn’t exist. So, rather than try to prevent that, we give them access and a place to sit, to direct that interest so they can enjoy the view without disturbing additional land. That is working with the people and the land.
I like to remember that there’s not one exact recipe. Like when you’re making bread — there are some key elements, but there are things that are flexible as well and make each loaf unique.
Bobbi: I love that! Lauren, thank you so much for this wonderful conversation.
Lauren: It was my pleasure. There are so many interesting parallels here. There are some people who hold a very narrow definition of the word “ecosystem,” but as an urban ecologist, I think we’re both doing similar work — figuring out how to grow thriving communities.
Note: Lauren and Bobbi are in the same family. Lauren is partnered with Bobbi’s nephew, Justin Wexler. Lauren recently revitalized the prairie on the south side of Chicago where Bobbi grew up in the late 1960s. At over 140 acres, Marian R. Byrnes is one of the largest natural areas in Chicago. The site, situated in the Jeffery Manor neighborhood, contains marsh, wet prairie, prairie, savanna, and woodland habitats. It is a great place to observe wildlife including frogs, snakes, birds, and deer. This park was previously known as Park No. 562 and Van Vlissingen Prairie.
After undergoing extensive ecological restoration, the park now provides community members with a safe space to relax and connect with nature. A paved multipurpose trail runs the length of the park, giving visitors access to multiple habitats and unique views.